How much home should I buy?

A reader who works with RE, Whittier Homes, says:

I’m in the camp that you don’t leave too much equity tied up in the walls of a house. That being said there is a risk factor or a comfort zone that every investor has to know. The bottom line is you don’t want to get over leverage and get caught on the short end of a declining market.

Home equity is simply what your home is valued at (today) less what you still owe on it (today).

This leads me to think that I’ve never said … and, nobody’s ever asked: How much equity should I have in my own home?

Well, there’s a reason:

I have NOTHING to say about how much equity – as a % of your house value – and, EVERYTHING to say about how much equity – as a % of your Net Worth – you should have tied up in your own home.

In other words, your equity is a function of:

– How much your house costs to buy

– How much it increases in value over time

– How much deposit you have available now

– How much you choose to put in / take out of the value of your house over time

I have no advice as to how much you should spend on your house in the first place, that’s your business not mine 🙂

But, I do have some guidelines that pretty much help to answer the “how much home should I buy?” question (other than for your first home), albeit obliquely:

1. The 20% Rule ensures that you are always investing at least 75% of your entire Net Worth (after allowing for another 5% to be spent on ‘stuff’),

2. The 25% Income Rule ensures that if you do decide to borrow money to buy a home, that you do not overcommit your cashflow,

3. The Cash Cascade makes sure that if you do have a mortgage, that you don’t pay it off too quickly if better investing opportunities abound.

Put these ‘rules’ into practice and you won’t go too far wrong, when it comes to your own home …

10 Paths To Wealth?

Ken Fisher is a well-known money manager – I know, because I’ve had to endure phone call after phone call when I stupidly signed up for one of his ‘free’ reports!

However, watching this video (and, maybe even buying his book) seems like a fairly non-threatening way to learn some of his wisdom.

Personally, I think you need to mix’n’match some of these methods to have a bats-chance-in-hades of making your Large Number / Soon Date.

On the other hand, I’m all for marrying into wealth, but who’d have me? 🙂

What price security?

How do you put a price on security?

Well, in this post I’m going to try and do exactly that but, first MoneyMonk asks the question that all people have at the back of their minds:

As a woman, I just want to say that “to each it’s own” Women love security.

If you are not a person that love investing, and you have the cash to pay off your mortgage (considering that you plan to live their forever)

Adrian- not everyone is business oriented. Some just don’t have the business acumen to run a business. Therefore, that group SHOULD pay off the mortgage

This is the dream of home ownership: own your home outright and you have nothing to worry about.

But, do you?

Let’s say that you own a $150,000 home today … what will it be worth in 30 year’s time?

About the same as a $150,000 home today, but in future dollars!

So, let me ask you; when your kids grow up, move out, and you retire, what are you going to move into?

Probably the same, or another $150,000 home … a smaller condo or newer townhouse that will probably not give you too much change, if any, from $150,000, a retirement home that (with fees) will cost you far more than $150,000.

Your home is not your financial security; your realizable net worth is. Put it another way: you can’t live off your home, but you can live off your cash and investments.

True security comes from knowing that you can pay your monthly bills for the rest of your life, without needing to work or get handouts from friends, relatives, or the government, through up markets and down (war, pestilence, and other Acts of God aside).

I hope that you see my point …

So, let’s look at two scenarios for a $150,000 house that you just bought and locked in a 30 year fixed rate loan at 6% (a bit higher than today’s actual rates, which are still between 5% and 5.5%):

1. You pay off your mortgage early

Note: We will assume that you are allowed to pay off as little / much as you like on your loan (not the case with some fixed rate loans in the USA, and certainly not the case with most fixed rate loans in most other countries!) because it makes the math simpler.

This is great, because you ‘earn’ 6% on your money [AJC: remember, a dollar saved – in interest – is the same as a dollar earned], better yet:

– The amount you ‘earn’ is guaranteed; every year that you are no longer paying that 6% loan, you are in effect earning 6% … simple and guaranteed!

– Unlike an investment that pays you 6%, there is no tax to be paid on the 6% mortgage that you save (although, there can be a negative benefit of losing the tax deduction on your home loan interest … but, I’m trying to keep this simple), so it’s more like earning 7.5% – 8.5% (depending on your tax rate) in any other investment.

– Let’s say that you plonk the entire $150k down in one hit, you save the entire $175k INTEREST (yes, a house that you buy for $150k in 2010 will have cost you $325k, just in principal and interest, by the time you have paid off the 30 year loan in 2040).

2. You do not pay off your mortgage early

NotePaying the loan off slower will, naturally, save you something greater than $0 and less than $175,000 … but, is too hard to calculate, here, so we will continue to use the assumption that somehow, you were able to pay that entire $150k loan off in one hit.

Well, it’s a fairly simple calculation then, isn’t it: what can you invest $150,000 in that will return more than $175,000? Let’s run some numbers and see:

Business: If Michael Masterson is right, and we gain 50% (or more) from our own business, then after 30 years you would have earned $29 Billion on your $150k ‘seed capital’.

But, MoneyMonk is right: there is extreme risk and skill involved in being successful in business … just a shame the potential reward is so low 😉

[AJC: just a tad more than the $175k interest that you would have saved if you used the money to pay off your mortgage instead of starting a business]

Real-Estate and Stocks: Again, if Michael Masterson is right, and we gain 30% by investing in a mixture of buy/hold real-estate and stocks (naturally, continually reinvesting the rents and dividends), then after 30 years you would have $392 million …

… if that sounds a lot, remember that Warren Buffett built up a $40 Billion+ fortune over 40 years at not much more than 21% compounded.

Stocks: I agree with Michael Masterson, that if you buy stock in just a few good businesses when they are are going cheap (as the market does from time to time) and wait 30 years, you should have no trouble getting a 15% compounded (pre-tax) return so, after 30 years you would have nearly 10 million.

But, all of this has some risk / skill associated with it … so, maybe paying off the mortgage and snaffling that $175k is still the way to go for all of those risk averse people [AJC: Like me. True!] out there?

But, wait, what if we just do the ‘no brainer’ thing and plonk that entire $150k in a set-and-forget-low-cost-Index-Fund?

Here’s the good news: paying off your mortgage is a 30 year investment (you have forgone 30 years of being locked in to a loan and paying 6% interest year in, year out), so it’s only fair that we buy $150k of Index Fund units and don’t even look at our portfolio for 30 years, right?

Well, that’s an ideal strategy – THE ideal strategy – for Boglehead set-and-forget investors! So …

Index Funds: Over 30 years, the markets (hence the lowest cost Index Funds) have averaged something more than 12% – set and forget (!) – so, after 30 years you would still gain close to $3.5 million!

But, wait … we’re all about security here: you can’t live off averages, right? What happens if there’s another crash like 1929 and 2008 the day after I plonk my entire $150k into an Index Fund?

Well, you lose half your money immediately 🙁

But, we don’t care what happens immediately, this is a 30 year set-and-forget plan … and, there has been NO 30 year period where the stock market hasn’t returned AT LEAST 8%.

Now, isn’t 8% (since we have to pay tax on it) exactly the same as the equivalent after-tax 6% mortgage (give or take 0.5%)?


The lowest possible return that we can get with any reasonable investment strategy that we can come up with is exactly the same as the best possible return that we can get by paying off our mortgage early.

Now, isn’t that interesting?

Punch Buggy Blue!

Let’s say that you do agree that real-estate is one of the best MM301 (wealth preservation) strategies … although, many of my readers would disagree …

[AJC: I’m happy to meet all the dissenters in, say, 50 years – at a very cheap restaurant, as they won’t be able to afford much more – to discuss how they went with their TIPS, bonds, cash and stocks-based retirement strategies. Then I’ll meet Scott, Ryan and all the other RE and business-based retirees on their private golf-course in Palm Beach for a second debrief 😉 ]

… but, what type of RE would fit the bill?

After all, many of my readers, Evan included, have had mixed experiences with RE:

I have watched my dad deal with C R A P for years. He owns 2 properties:
1) CASH COW – 2 family residential unit income exceeds mortgage payments. They always pay on time and there mostly are no problems

2) 2 family unit with a bar attached. I have listened to him say for YEARS, that if the bar paid its rent things would be different. I feel like the stress associated with this property is going to kill him eventually, and that is the commercial part.

In NY it takes 9 to 18 months to get someone out, so even if you try to evict you are looking at legal and time costs that could literally eat 6 months profit.

As I said to Evan:

That’s why we keep TWO YEARS’ buffer 😉

But, we all have a Reticular Activating System (RAS) that attracts us to whatever it is that has caught our attention … for example, have you ever played the Punch Buggy / Slug Bug game with your friends and / or kids?

If not, it’s a bundle of fun – and, pain. Actually, mainly pain 🙁

It works like this: who ever sees a VW ‘bug’ first calls out “Punch Buggy [insert color of choice: yellow, green, red, etc.] !!” and gets to whack the other person on the arm … as hard as they like [AJC: usually me. ouch!] …

It’s amazing how many VW Beetles there are on the roads, these days!

We used to play a similar game – many, many years ago – when I was on the school bus: we used to look for Chrysler Chargers, and whomever saw one first would yell out “Hey, Charger!” and hold up their hand with a Richard Nixonesque V-For-Victory sign.

The winner for the day was the one who scored the most ‘victories’ …

It’s amazing how many Chrysler Chargers there were on the roads, in those days 🙂

Of course, what’s happening is that our RAS is simply filtering IN Chargers (or VW Beeltes) and filtering OUT other types of vehicles, making it SEEM as though Chargers / Beetles are everywhere … of course, there are no more / less than there were before we started looking out for them.

Similarly, with RE – or other – investments:

Our view tends towards our first direct – or, even indirect – experiences; which helps to explain why my generation is more conservative (we went through some down cycles in the late 80’s and early 90’s) and younger folk were more bullish, having had 15 to 20 good years … until resetting their RAS’ in the current cycle.

Similarly, Evan’s views may be colored by his Dad’s experiences albeit mixed.

But, Evan’s Dad could have avoided many of his RE problems by buying well … now, for MM301, buying well is NOT the same as buying well for MM201:

While we are still building towards our Number, we need to buy RE that will appreciate strongly, with rents just covering cashflow (of course, we wouldn’t say “no” to more!) …

… but, when we have reached our Number, we need to generate INCOME, so buying well really means that we need to:

Buy to protect our future income / rental stream

As I have shown you, it’s easy to get a positive cashflow from RE; just pay cash!

And, live happily from 75% of the rents (less taxes), knowing that the other 25% will cover all of your ‘normal’ costs (management fees, vacancies, repairs and maintenance, etc.), and will keep up with inflation.

It’s the last part that is key: since we are never selling these properties [AJC: lucky kids!], we don’t really care how much/little the RE itself appreciates, we just care how much the rents appreciate, and our benchmark for this is:

The rents must appreciate at least as much as inflation

That is through both UP and DOWN markets …

… so, I would keep away from bars and other retail EXCEPT for counter-cycle retailers such as dollar stores, groceries / food stores (food staples only), and – of course – Walmart and Walgreens [AJC: if I could get my hands on the freehold!].

Remember, we’re not looking for extraordinary capital growth (any more), but protection in down-cycles.

[AJC: oh, and if you were going to buy stocks (again, for retirement capital protection and dividends); these types of retailers and food businesses would be great ‘protection stocks’ to own, as well]

And, moving away from retail, I would also happily buy small offices, say, housing a number of separate professionals (e.g. doctors, attorneys, etc.), as these professions are required in all markets and my risks are well spread.

But, I would avoid large offices – or industrial showrooms and warehouses – housing SME’s, as these are prime candidates for simply shutting shop in a down cycle, and I may only have one tenant per property (even though buying 6 or 7 of these would certainly help to insulate the ‘shock’)

And, you might be surprised to find that I am not all that excited about residential (even multi-family) for MM301, simply because the rental returns are usually not that great (but, they can make a fantastic MM201 strategy).

Remember, RE isn’t the only MM301 Wealth Protection strategy that you can base your retirement (or, life after work) around, it’s just that I am struggling to find another one that has both income and capital that can keep up with inflation, fairly consistently, through at least the 30 to 50 years that I still plan to be around …

… can you?

The Golden Faucet

Ordinary folk don’t plan their finances during their working life, so what chance do they have in retirement?


But, that doesn’t apply to us smart folk who read personal finance blogs …

… WE plan our retirement according to either Poor Man methods, or Rich Man methods known only to a few i.e. The Rich!

By the end of this post, you will know the difference; whether you choose to believe me and what you choose to do with this information is entirely up to you 😉

So, here goes:

Conventional Personal Finance wisdom – clearly ascribed to by the majority of my readers – says that you pick a so-called ‘Safe Withdrawal Rate’ …

…. that is, the percentage of your retirement Nest Egg that you can withdraw to live off each year that you feel will be small enough that your money will last as long as you do.

A sensible objective, wouldn’t you think?

You can pick any % between 2% and 7% (even up to 10%, if you believe all of those Get Rich Quick books) and find some expert or study that supports your choice.

You then have a choice to

a) make that % a fixed amount of your initial retirement portfolio (e.g. let’s say that you retire with $1,000,000 and choose 4%, giving you an initial retirement salary of $40k p.a.), then increase that salary by c.p.i each year regardless of how your portfolio rises or falls [AJC: it’s called the “close your eyes and hang on tight” approach to retirement living], or

b) choose your preferred ‘safe’ withdrawal % and let that rise and fall according to the rise and fall of your your portfolio’s value … so, if you happen to retire a year before the next stock market crash, you could be withdrawing 4% of $1 mill. in one year, then 4% of $500k the next year [AJC: no problem, as long as you can stifle the urge to jump off a ledge when your income halves, as well]

Optimists will choose a withdrawal rate in the 5% to 7% range and pessimists will choose a withdrawal rate in the 3% to 5% range …

… Rich people will do neither!


Well, before you retire (i.e. now, while you are still working) you could draw a curve of your likely salary moves between now and retirement and you could pick a living standard that corresponds to that curve, using actuarial tables to basically create an inflation indexed annuity for yourself throughout your working life.

But you don’t.

Instead, you live according to your means – and, adjust as necessary – and, build up various safety nets (via cash reserves and insurances) as you deem prudent and necessary.

Why would you do any different after you retire?

Poor people who retire put their money in a bucket and a little trickles in (interest, dividends, capital appreciation) and a lot gushes out (inflation, taxes, expenses, disasters).

You have a bad year or three, overspend a little, a couple of health issues, and you’re screwed [AJC: it even happens to retired sports stars, movie stars, and musicians. Ever heard of MC Hammer?].

But it doesn’t happen to smart Rich people, because they don’t drink from a bucket … they drink from a golden faucet:

They create – then live from – an income, both before retirement and after!

Think about our energy crisis past, present and future … all resolvable (we hope!) by switching to an abundant source of clean, green, renewable energy.

Now, think about all of your spending crisis past, present and future … all resolvable (you hope!) by living within your means a.k.a. creating an abundant source of renewable income!

That income can come from a family business that you retire from but retain “passive” part-ownership of; from venture capital activities; from real-estate investments; and, so on … in fact, from any investment that produces a reliable income stream that tends to grow at least in line with inflation.

Here is how I planned it:

1. I used the Rule of 20 strictly for planning purposes [AJC: this sounds like a 5% withdrawal rate, but who said that I’m actually going to withdraw the 5% each year?!]

2. I started creating a Perpetual Money Machine: something that will produce income that I can live off; in my case, it was RE bought with (or, for which I already have built up) plenty of equity or cash to ensure a healthy positive cash flow.

3. To cover ‘bad years’ and other contingencies, I retain at least 25% of the income stream until I have built up enough for TWO YEARS of living expenses and then I reinvest whatever is left over (i.e. buy another property every few years).

So, what if something goes wrong as it did for me when the GFC hit leaving me with too much house, another house I can’t get rid of, and $2.5 million of unavoidable stock losses [AJC: part payment for my business came in UK stock … yuk!], resulting in not enough income?

You go back to MM201 and start again (hence, my commercial property development activities) …

… after all, history has shown that your first fortune is by far the hardest 🙂

One of the best tips for small business owners …

One of the very best wealth-building secrets for business owners has nothing to do with improving your business … and, everything to do with turning that spare cashflow into appreciating assets:

Just like buying your first home is a 7million7years key wealth building strategy, so is owning your own property for small business owners, just as the guy in this video recommends … I can’t vouch for his financing strategies as I don’t know enough (but perhaps some of our readers do?) …

… but, simply buying my own office generated in excess of $1 million extra net worth for me in just 5 years.

I bought an office block for $1.27 million; I then completely rehabbed it (including new offices, workstations, phone system, and computer equipment) for another $500k, which I leased over 5 years (with a $1 balloon/final payment).

The mortgage interest and the lease payments were 100% tax deductible from my business income (actually, I charged myself a high commercial rent as the property was in a different company name).

I sold the building for nearly $2.5 million just 5 years later!

The Ideal Perpetual Money Machine …

So,  it seems that creating a mix of bonds and stocks and then picking some magic withdrawal rate (e.g. 4%) is not the ideal way to plan our retirement (a.k.a. life after work) after all …

… instead, it seems that we need to create our own Perpetual Money Machine: a renewable resource of cash 😉

The ideal Perpetual Money Machine – at least, according to my liking – is Real-Estate (more wealthy people build their own Perpetual Money Machines using real-estate that any other investment, even more so than cash, CD’s, bonds, mutual funds, or stocks):

1. Real-Estate (particularly commercial real-estate, when purchased well) protects your capital and keeps pace with inflation; it will last as long as you do, and then some!

2. Real-Estate (when managed well -and, this is something that you CAN confidently outsource) protects your income (i.e. net rents; they will grow with inflation).

3. The bumps in your real-estate road can be managed with insurance and provisions: you can insure against most catastrophic losses (and, you can spead your RE investments to minimize even those risks), and you can keep a % of your rents (and, starting capital) aside to help smooth your income stream (against vacancies, repairs and maintenance, etc.).

For example, with $7 million (aiming for a $350k per year gross income – indexed for inflation – which should net $200k – $250k after tax), you could:

1. Keep $500,000 as a two years of living expenses cash buffer (one year to allow for the rents to start coming in, another year “just in case”),

2. Invest $6.5 million CASH into 5 x $1.0 million to $1.25 million dollar properties (allowing for closing costs, etc.),

3. Which should provide 5 x 7.5% x $1.0 million to $1.25 million = $400,000 gross rental income

4. Of which you would pay tax of 30% (say) and divert another 25% of the remainder to your ’emergency / provision fund’ leaving $215k (PLUS, tax benefits such as depreciation, tax deductions of cars, certain travel and other business expenses etc.).

After every few ‘good years’, you can trim your provision fund back to two years of living expenses, allowing you to buy some more real-estate (therefore, providing the basis for another future pay rise!).

If you don’t like real-estate, then you can always lower your spending expectations and dust off your bond-laddering books 🙂

Fitting a square peg into a round hole …

The real problem with any of the so-called ‘safe withrawal rates’ that we explored yesterday – with 4% currently being perhaps the most popular amount advocated – is that they all assume a fixed annual spending amount, but are actually generated by a totally volatile (some would say random) portfolio.

We’re trying to fit a square peg (fixed annual spending) into a round hole ( a ‘random walk down Wall Street’) 😉

But 7m7y readers have an even more fundamental problem with planning our ‘retirement’ based on this type of common industry wisdom: we are planning on retiring early, hopefully, with a very large Number and a soon Date!

Most retirement models assume a 30 to 35 year retirement lifespan …

… I don’t know about you, but I retired at 49 and intend to live AT LEAST another 40 years 🙂

Many of my readers will be aiming to reach their Numbers even sooner .. and, may expect to live even longer!

The bottom-line: traditional retirement planning models don’t work, because we need money that will last as long as we do … we need a Perpetual Money Machine, because we don’t know how long we will live once we stop working.

A Perpetual Money Machine is anything that:

a) Protects your capital over the long-run, even allowing for the ravages of market changes and inflation, and

b) Produces a reasonably reliable stream of income, that also (at least) keeps pace with inflation.

Neither stocks nor bonds – the traditional tools of retirement investing – fit the bill for us:

1. Stocks are too volatile, and the income tends to be artificial (e.g. so-called dividend stocks attempt to fix the level of dividend provided even as the company’s profits fluctuate).

[AJC: Raiding marketing, R&D, and other seemingly non-essential budgets in lean years in order to protect the dividend stream is – to my mind – the mark of a poorly run company]

2. Bonds provide a very safe return, but the % returned each year is too low, meaning – at least, to me – an unnecessarily reduced lifestyle, especially after allowing for reinvestment to try and keep up with inflation.

That’s why my Rule of 20 is exactly that: a planning rule, NOT a 5% spending rule!

[AJC: Otherwise, I would have called it the 5% Rule, d’oh!].

In other words, my advice for PLANNING your Number, is to decide what initial income you want and multiply that by 20 in order to find your Number

… but, my advice for LIVING your Number is to turn on your Perpetual Money Machine and live off whatever it happens to produce, after allowing for taxes and provisions against inflation and contingencies.

Is your first home a good investment?

This is a loaded question, obviously, because I just revisited the subject of buying your first home (of which I am now an avid fan) a week or so ago; Rick suggested:

Since equities also have a good long term investment record, why not scale back on the primary residence somewhat and invest in both real estate and equities?

At the time, I responded by saying: “The effect of the 20% Equity Rule and 25% Income Rule is to ensure that you are always investing AT LEAST 75% of your networth elsewhere (could be business, RE, equities, etc., etc.).”

Of course, that doesn’t address the question, as I have also said that these rules are up for grabs – meaning, you can just ignore them – when considering buying your first home.

Now, I am clearly a fan of buying your first home – you just need to go back to one of my very first posts to see that – but, it wasn’t always that way …

… I started by believing that there were other investments out there that performed better than your first home.

And, that still holds true; after all, as my Grandfather once told my Grannie when they had the same decision to make soon after immigrating to Australia:

You can’t always buy a business from your home … but, you can always buy a home from [the profits produced by] your business.

This still holds true … as does the 20% Equity Rule. In other words, if you are absolutely committed to using the funds to start a business, or are ABSOLUTELY committed to ALWAYS investing at least 75% of your Net Worth, then by all means keep renting.

It’s just that 99% of people will – sooner or later – fall off the investing wagon. It’s human nature.

Then they’ll end up with no investments, little net worth, and no home. Buying your first home, and using that as a springboard into other investments, is a great way to go; just remember what I said, way back in the beginning of 2008:

 If you are ready, willing and able to buy your first house, or you are thinking of trading up (or, down) …. here’s my advice:

Put aside the emotional decisions and just consider the financial impact, and that is: your house is the ONLY way that most people will ever get off the launching pad to financial success …

Why? Because, you are building up equity over time (even a flat or falling real estate market eventually climbs back up again) …

… but – and here is the key – ONLY if you are prepared to put the equity in your house to work for you … that means, borrowing against the equity in your house to INVEST.